In only a matter of 16 hours I picked up James K.A. Smith’s book “Desiring the Kingdom” and finished it.
After getting through the first couple of chapters late in the Spurs-Heat playoff game, I woke up to find myself desiring to see the book to its end.
Smith’s book is relentlessly engaging. His questions are thought-provoking. His writing is lucid. His analogies are apt. And his construction is well-researched.
Although I will provide some critique of the book this does not mean readers should not pick this book up. Rather I think precisely because this book raises such good questions most scholars, administrators, and pastors need to get their hands (or should we say heads) on this book.
The book is packed with philosophical concepts and analysis, so this reflection will only be able to focus on the anthropological part of the book. Numerous posts would be needed to adequately interact with the rest of it.
Smith begins by asking “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” This question leads to what he identifies as the problem with much of Christian education.
A reductionistic, or less than robust anthropology had led to a focus on the cognitive neglecting that we are embodied creatures who are defined more by what we love than what we think or believe.
We feel our way around our world more than we think our way through it. Our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect, and the imagination runs off the fuel of images that are channeled by the senses. So our affective, noncognitive disposition is an aspect of our animal, bodily nature. The result is a much more holistic (and less dualistic) picture of human persons as essentially embodied. –
The “worldview paradigm” has dominated the modernistic approach to education. But worship comes before worldview, and most Protestants have it backwards. Prayer and worship comes before knowledge. Regularly Protestants put worldview at the top and think that this fuels worship.
In short, the goal is to push down through worldview to worship as the matrix from which a Christian worldview is born – and to consider what that means for the task of Christian education and the shape of Christian worship. This doesn’t require rejecting worldview-talk, only situating it in relation to Christian practices, particularly the practices of Christian worship.
If this anthropology is true, then the telos (goal) of education should not be not information but formation. “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” The intellectualist philosophy tends to drop the body out of the picture and makes human look like bobble-heads rather than embodied creatures.
So the basic anthropological point is that humans are lovers. Then he spends the rest of book saying the way to form loves is through liturgical practices. As Smith summarizes his argument in an interview.
My argument in Desiring the Kingdom is that, in fact, the vast majority of our action and behavior is “driven” by all sorts of unconscious, pre-cognitive “drivers,” so to speak. Those pre-conscious desires are formed in all sorts of ways that are not “intellectual.” And so while I might be fueling my mind with a steady diet of Scripture, what I don’t realize that is that all sorts of other cultural practices are actually forming my desire in affective, unconscious ways. Because of the sorts of creatures we are, those pre-conscious desires often win out. This is why it’s crucial that Christian spiritual formation – and Christian worship – is attentive to a holistic formation of our imagination.
Smith is onto something here. We are not just thinking-beings, but following Augustine, we are lovers. If one were to divide the human into the three most common categories (mind, will, heart) then it seems to me the most popular enlightenment modernist construction of our ontology would be as follows.
The mind is placed at the top and filters into the other parts of our being.
But couple of problems with this paradigm arise. First, as Smith points out it is a reductionistic anthropology. We are more than bobble-heads. Second, as David Crump aptly puts it:
The problem with human reason, according to both Kierkegaard and the New Testament, is that it is prone to forget its proper place in the scheme of life. Reason is avidly imperialistic, attempting to plant its victory flag over every dimension of thought whether it belongs there or not. Reason typically assumes an objective, analytical, dispassionate, superior posture, lording it over anything that smacks of personal subjectivity, passion, or spiritual experience.
The intellect and reason have their place, but the problem is “beginning” here. For the paradigm does place the mind in superiority to the other parts of our being. Smith therefore contends for the following graph.
According to Smith we are defined more by what we love than what we think. This allows a more holistic view of the embodiment of the human person. There is Scriptural warrant for this. The two most basic commands are to “love God and love your neighbor.” When one is saved their “love” changes first, and then the rest falls into place.
After reading the book I have been noticing the truth of this everywhere. A person I know recently bruised his ribs. The doctor told him to lay off volleyball for the time being. But he loves volleyball, so he went out and played volleyball anyways. His mind (and doctor) were telling him not to play, but his desire won out.
And while there is value and truth to his suggestion, he is not only describing the human metaphysical makeup, but attempting to explain how we change. It seems to me this relationship should look something more like this.
The will/actions/liturgies affect our heart and mind. But the desires also affects the will and the mind. The mind affects the will and desires. It goes every-which way so that a chart even has a hard time conveying the complexity.
Putting any of these at the top or core of our being warps the paradigm.
One other note is in order. Many people will argue against the idea that affections can be trained by actions as Smith states.
But this is not an either/or. Smith is again right to challenge the common paradigm. Most of us would agree that going to church when we did not feel like it many times shaped our affections. Both effect one another.
Smith’s book is welcome contribution that I found myself very stimulated by. I wish he would have gone to Scriptures more and combined this with his philosophical analysis. There is much more than could be said about the book, and I have a feeling most will come away from the book both challenged and having some questions.
But these are the best type of books, because they stretch you, and I for one am very thankful for Smith’s work.
If one is interested in reading more about this book read the following
- Trevin Wax’s review and his interview
- Matthew Lee Anderson’s review, as well and James Smith’s response
- The first chapter is online in PDF format
- Watch James Smith lecture on the book